An Interview with Sister Jackie Ryan, OSM

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation including your family?


Sister Jackie: I am one of six children born to parents who came to the United States from Syria. Although I would never describe my family as particularly religious, my early Catholic formation was rooted in the traditions of my parents’ strong faith that included a deep devotion to Mary. It was not uncommon to hear prayers and blessings in Arabic throughout your day or to witness either parent calling on Mary in formal and informal ways, especially in times of difficulty.


As a family we attended St. John Berchmans Parish as well as the parish school in Detroit. It was a smooth transition to Servite High. Both were staffed by Servite priests and religious. The influence of Servite women and men was evident in my relationships formed over the years.


Dr. Knight: Please tell us of the significance of your high school years in formation?


Sister Jackie: As I mentioned, I was educated by the Servants of Mary (Servite Sisters) throughout my elementary and high school years. The Sisters were not only terrific educators, but models of compassion, which I admired in them. Their influence on my faith formation reached beyond the religion classes. How they interacted with each other and with their students spoke volumes to me.


I knew at a young age that I wanted to be like them. I am grateful to many of them for the manner in which they influenced my own call to religious life as a Servant of Mary.


Dr. Knight: You went to college and entered the Servites. How did you make that decision?


Sister Jackie: When I was in grade school, the Servants of Mary, as many other communities, provided opportunities for girls to go to Omaha and attend MarianHigh School, our community staffed school. One of the sisters asked if I would be interested. I thought about it and decided to approach my parents.


I first initiated the conversation with my mother. Her immediate response was, “Talk to your father.” I knew my father was at work but I was eager to know what he might think, so I sought him out without hesitation. My parents had a family owned restaurant, where my father was the chef and worked during the day while my mother worked there in the evenings.


I remember talking to my father in the kitchen of the restaurant. He was not against me entering religious life if I had a vocation, but he didn’t want me to begin that process so early. He said something that made more sense to me later. He said, “Your mother will need you. When you are out of high school, you may go with my blessing”


Sadly, my father died suddenly a week later. Of the six children, my younger sister and I were the only ones still at home. Mom did need me. She was now a widow, who was never educated in this country and never really learned to read English. She didn’t even drive. Although without a formal education, my mother had a strong personality and educated herself in many ways.


When my graduation grew near, I began to second guess myself and my decision to enter the Servants of Mary. After all, mom needed me. When I approached my mother with the possibility of delaying my decision, she discouraged me for doing so. “This is what you have always wanted.” She assured me she would be fine.


I left home on September 8, 1963, shortly after graduating from Servite High School. I would attend what was then Servite College in Omaha.


Dr. Knight: You were called by God to participate in Servite community. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Christ?


Sister Jackie: If I am honest, what do you really know about life when you are 18 years old? All I knew at that time is that I wanted to be like the Servite women I had admired for so many years.


I sensed God was calling me to embrace a life of service to others. I think my understanding of what that actual meant is something that I have grown in to. As I have matured, so has my understanding of what my call entails. Speaking out against the injustices in our world would never have been in my realm of thinking at the age of eighteen.


Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?


Sister Jackie: Yes, it is correct to say that I developed an understanding of my abilities and gifts over the years, but not always through a formal process of discernment. Sometimes it is through recognition and encouragement of others that I have come to recognize and understand my giftedness. None the less, they remain God moments.


It wasn’t until the early 80’s when I entered into a process of discernment for leadership within our community that I learned more about the Ignatian process of discernment. I have relied on that experience whenever I need to make any type of serious decisions. Through prayerful discernment the confirmation of that choice becomes obvious.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life as a Servite is somewhat a mosaic of your different skills?


Sister Jackie: Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to recognize that my life as a Servant of Mary (Servite Sister) has called forth abilities and gifts that I never knew I had. I think that these gifts correspond to my personality, which is basic to who I am. When pieced together and blessed by God’s grace, they form the mosaic of who I am.


Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a follower of Christ?


Sister Jackie: I believe we are all called to be followers of Christ through Baptism. It is a universal call to holiness for all people. How you choose to live that call is a personal choice. My hope is that my story will encourage and support others in their call. I pray that together, regardless of our roles, we can bring about a better world.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?


Sister Jackie: I think every age has its own unique challenges. Those we face today: the shortage of priests and religious, involvement of women in the ministry of the Church, clericalism, the role of the Catholic Church in healing the ills of poverty throughout the world to name but a few. These will not be resolved in my lifetime, but I believe that if we continue to address these issues with the mind and heart of Christ, we will be a Church based on the principles and values of the Gospels.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a follower of Christ?


Sister Jackie: The Charism of our community, which is to “manifest the compassionate presence of God, in the spirit of Mary…” brings me great joy. It is both an honor and a privilege to know that I can give that to others with whom I minister.


In my ministry as a teacher, and later as a mental health therapist, I have often experienced that joy when I sit with people who feels alone, isolated, rejected, or unloved and share with them that they are not alone, that they are held in the loving embrace of our God.


Although my ministry within the community is different, I know that I am still able to give life to our Charism with the people and situations put before me each day.


Dr. Knight: As a Servite what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?


Sister Jackie: I am currently involved in leadership as the Assistant Prioress of the US/Jamaica Community of Servants of Mary. My position has many facets, which include but are not limited to working with our sisters, monitoring finances, working with employees, involvement in the sponsorship of MarianHigh School etc. Although I am involved in all these areas, I see my primary responsibility as partnering with Sr. Jackie Ryan, Prioress, and her council in caring for the well-being and health of the community both individually and collectively.


At time it feels overwhelming, yet I trust in the power of the Spirit.“In God, all things are possible.”